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erosion – a new type of gameplay mechanic

Posted by janetingley

Ian here. I haven’t posted anything on this blog yet, so you can take this post as you will. In it I am going to describe two useful terms which are not in our common game studies vocabulary yet, but I argue should be, due to their increasing relevance to new multiplayer games. The reason I decided to write this now and not last summer (when I came up with the terms) is because of Carolyn’s team on the GGJ, which attempted to verbalize the gameplay mechanic present in the “Minecraft Experiment” and construct a game with a similar mechanic. We could save a lot of time talking if that mechanic could be bundled into a singular term.

I propose the term erosion to categorize a new type of gameplay mechanic (and genre of game in general) that has arisen with the advent of Minecraft. Erosion is obviously an appropriation of the geological term, which can be summed up as a natural weathering process on the Earth’s crust. The parallel drawn here is that since the environment of a game is unnatural (i.e. determined by a rule or ruleset), only the player’s actions on the environment can be natural. Therefore the agent of erosion in a game-space is the player. (Here I use the term game-space because “virtual space” implies the digital, yet we could imagine a real-world game with erosive qualities. In addition, every multiplayer game where the players can interact with at least one object in the space of play has an element of erosion, albeit a negligible one.)

“Erosion” is the change in a game-space over time caused by multi-player interaction (usually with a high amount of players and over an extended period of time). A game that is not erosive is either a single-player game, or a game which focuses on direct player-player interaction without manipulation of a shared game-space (for example Tag, Twister). Games that highlight erosion as one of their main gameplay elements can be called “erosive games.” Though Minecraft is categorized by many as a “sandbox” or “open-world” game, what sets Minecraft apart from the generalization is that Minecraft has an extremely strong element of erosion. If we look at other “sandbox” or “open-world” games like Skyrim, GTA, Fallout 3, etc, we find that these games either have a very small amount of erosion (often because player interaction with the environment is extremely limited), or focus solely on single-player. Hopefully “erosion” is useful to you, as it was to me, in grouping “Minecraft-like” games together while retaining some conciseness to the element these games have in common.

The second term I propose, which is sort of a side-note and is included in the set of “erosive” games, is virtual archaeology. A “virtual archaeologist” is a player who goes into an erosive game and investigates what other players have left behind. Importantly, the virtual archaeologist does the investigation after-the-fact, not observing the player when they are “online,” but when their embodiment has left the game-space. Although “virtual archaeology” is currently used by archaeologists to describe the computer simulation of archaeological sites, it takes on a very different meaning here.

Hope you found those useful,

– Ian